Friday, October 23, 2009


I don't know about you, but I have been thinking - really thinking - about ego a lot as of late. I mean, A LOT. Maybe because mine thwarts me so. Maybe because it's at the crux of a very important lesson I need to learn. Maybe because it's a term of popular parlance in modern culture and seems to pop up all the time in the most banal places.

Whatever the reason, it's been haunting me lately. Showing up in my readings, my television shows, my morning news.

You see, I had always understood ego as the prideful side of me. The haughty, snooty, all-too-important, give-me-a-pony side rooted in childhood yearnings and unfulfilled wishes. But it has only been recently that I have also begun to recognize ego as the insecure and cowed side of me as well. The broken, dark, hopeless side convinced of failure and eager to point out moments of stupidity or ugliness in order to reinforce an imagined need for anonymity.

I guess ego can go both ways. It can make us feel larger than everyone around us, or smaller than dirt. And both are distorted visions of who we are and where we stand in relation to others - one increasing us to gargantuan size and the other working diligently to remain invisible because we are convinced of our smallness.

Ego is the voice that whispers to you and tells you convincing lies. It plays upon your fears and fishes through the caverns of your heart to find the perfect nugget that will unnerve you or jangle in just the right way so you speak in jumbles and don't say what you mean.

And here is the most important part, I feel, of this ego conundrum. Ego, which is the opposite of our larger self - the one that is connected to all people and all life and everything around us - ego, the little "i" of our seeing and being and living, is what ends up separating us from other people. Either because we feel we cannot reach up high enough to merit their attention or because we feel we are too far above to possibly be able to understand or even tolerate their presence.

This can be communicated and experienced in a myriad of ways. The most simple of which might be never seeing (really seeing) the people around you on the train as you head to work. Ignoring the man standing at the entrance of Starbucks, cup in hand. Forgetting to hold the door for the woman with a stroller wrangling two kids and a shopping bag. Talking yourself out of asking her out. Heading home early from a party because you were convinced everyone was ignoring you. Never sending out the manuscript you finished three years ago.

In its more insidious form, it becomes road rage, cruelty, racism, violence. The news stories all start to chant the tale of little "i": racially motivated hazing in South Africa, violence against women in the media, increased violence in Pakistan.

I realized this morning that if we all believed, knew and understood and embraced, that we were all connected - all part of humanity, or life, or spirit, or god or whatever you wish to call it - if we saw ourselves more in the context of the big "I" and not the little, then we would be much less likely to hurt one another. We would be more compassionate, more forgiving, more patient with each other.

There is an excellent TED talk by Jill Boltle Taylor about her stroke and how it changed her way of viewing and experiencing the world. As a neuro-scientist, she made meaning via left and right brain... but she also talks about how it connects to the different lenses we use to view the world. The ego vs. the larger self (little "i" vs. big "I"). The way in which she describes how she experienced a connection to everything during her stroke when her ego (her left brain) shut down was particularly significant. Something that has stuck with me.

Of course, contemplation is often so much easier than action. And so it was I had started down this path of thought, listening to stories of disconnection and sadness on the radio, when I encountered a garbage truck in the alley.

I could not get through. I was worried I would be late to pick up Ari at school. It was raining out. And so I sat, patiently at first, waiting for the man to finish loading in the large bins outside each building on our block. One. Two. Three. Four. Surely he must be done now. He looks at me. He gets into his truck, moves forward. And stops about 2 feet from his original position... gets out and begins to load in more garbage. He could have moved just a few more feet to let me pass. But he does not. He doesn't even look at me. Just loads up more garbage, truck smack-dab in the center of the alley.

It is at this moment I snap, start spewing forth expletives, and quickly turn around to go the other way and loop the entire block so I may go in my intended direction down Ridge. I am cursing him, feeling angry and mean, wishing to pour forth my ire in some tangible, unavoidable way so that he may understand the ignorance of his actions.

I consider stopping near the alley so I can roll down the window and scream some choice words at the man. Or maybe hop out and read him the riot act for being so blind to someone else's needs. But then I think: he's doing his job. He's got his own needs, his own morning, his own time clock to contend with. And even if he didn't move out of spite or uncaring or whatever... the bottom line is, my anger does nothing for either of us.

So I drive on, get to Ari with plenty of time to spare, and think some more about ego and "other" and the ways we imagine ourselves separate from one another. Mostly to justify our ego-driven decisions.

May you notice others around you today with a sense of compassion and connection. May you feel embraced by the world around you.

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